Renovate RFK for D.C. United? Inconceivable!

SBNation is a strange hybrid: It’s hired lots of actual journalists in its attempts to become a more professional sports news site, but at it’s heart it’s still the collection of sports blogs that it was at its founding in 2009. (It’s what the “SB” stands for.) And so you still get the occasional rant like this one by D.C. United fan Ben Bromley, who is plumb outraged that some people testified at a recent public hearing that D.C. should look at renovating RFK Stadium before spending $140 million or maybe $200 million or who knows on a new soccer-only stadium at Buzzard Point.

Let’s take Bromley’s claims one at a time in the order that he presents them, though in order of the crazy scale would also be fun:

  • “RFK Stadium is infested with rats, racoons, wasps, and probably a myriad of other creatures.”

First off, it’s “raccoons.” (Blogs don’t copyedit, I guess, though these days neither do newspapers.) More seriously: Seriously? Of all the things wrong with a building, a rat infestation is about the easiest to solve. It’s like complaining that you need to tear your house down because it needs a paint job.

  • “Its concession don’t make enough money, it doesn’t have luxury boxes, it was built for football and baseball, and it is literally crumbling.”

The first two are true (though that should be “concessions”), but are also presumably what a renovation would be all about upgrading. “Built for football and baseball” is a less easily fixable problem, but given that the fantastically successful Seattle Sounders play in a football stadium, not an insurmountable one. As for “literally crumbling,” that claim has a long history in stadium battles, dating back at least to Bo Schembechler’s “We will not be shackled to a rusty girder!” speech regarding Tiger Stadium, but no, RFK Stadium isn’t actually having small pieces fall off of it, though maybe this can also be chalked up to the lack of copy editors.

  • “A major renovation of the stadium would likely cost well over the cost of a new stadium. For example, proposed renovations to the Rogers Centre, a similarly styled stadium of a similar age, would cost over $250 million to retrofit and modernize the stadium.”

The Rogers Centre, formerly the Skydome, was built 30 years after RFK Stadium and features a retractable roof, restaurants, and a hotel, much of which will be the focus of the building’s upgrades. (Which won’t actually necessarily cost $250 million — this was just one estimate of the amount of work the Toronto Blue Jays would like to see done over the next decade, according to team president Paul Beeston, famed as the guy who said he could make sports accounting numbers show anything he wanted.) Nobody knows what a renovation of RFK for soccer would cost, which is exactly the point that critics of the Buzzard Point deal are making.

  • “And the land upon which the stadium sits is owned by the Federal government, who would have to give approval if the District wanted to just tear down the stadium and build a new one in its place. One of the only deliberative bodies more dysfunctional than the D.C. Council is our beloved Federal government.”

RFK is actually owned by the National Park Service, so fortunately a new stadium wouldn’t have to go through the House Agriculture Committee or anything. But everyone hates the federal government these days, so come right in, straw man!

Renovating RFK certainly wouldn’t be an easy solution, and might well turn out to be more expensive than it’s worth. And really, the focus at this point should be more on why the heck D.C. is preparing to give its soccer team more than twice as much in subsidies as the typical MLS team has received, especially when D.C. United’s relocation options are slim to nonexistent. But it’s absolutely an option worth exploring — it just might be feasible, if they can figure out a way to deal with the rabbid racoons.

21 comments on “Renovate RFK for D.C. United? Inconceivable!

  1. “…it was built for football and baseball…”

    Things change, but this wasn’t a problem back when the World Cup and Olympics came to town. RFK was considered to have more of a soccer-friendly design and Euro-football-stadium-ish feel than the other large stadiums used for those events. It may be in need of some TLC, but the configuration isn’t an issue that couldn’t be fixed with relatively minor changes.

  2. 1988 and 1994 are too far in the past to consider the stadium new, and not far enough in the past to consider the stadium a landmark that needs to be preserved (Old Tradford, or Fenway old).

    DCU ownership has made it clear that they want a new stadium because of revenues, which they cannot really spend on the team due to salary caps in MLS. RFK could survive, but it would take an Angels Stadium style renovation (when they removed football) where they basically rebuild the lower bowl and rebuild the 2nd tier where the luxury boxes and the team playing else where (FedEx or Nationals Park).

    The supporters are pushing for a new stadium, because they’ll get goodies. For instance, the The Cauldron seating section in Sporting KC has a private bar and private members section for the supporters). Also all the other teams got new stadiums so we should get one too. So I don’t blame them, especially with the city basically trying to push them out to free up the land that is zoned for a stadium only.

    My guess is that they’ll get their new stadium with public money, but it won’t be the same.

  3. About 5 or 6 years ago, I asked Kevin Payne (via email) that very question… Why not renovate RFK?

    It wasn’t an anti public money crusade (I assumed that, like everyone else, DCU would get public money to build something). It’s just irrational that a team that once again had it’s own stadium (after the nats left) was complaining that it couldn’t survive without it’s own stadium.

    No, RFK doesn’t “fit” soccer perfectly (see: However, because it was built as a multisport facility, it has ‘extra’ space in the playing area… so it absolutely can be reconfigured for soccer (and not just by removing lower bowl seating). Money just needs to be spent to make it a more soccer friendly environment.

    If DCU wanted to do it, they could spend some money (and probably get gov’t money to “save RFK”) to turn it into a more permanent soccer stadium. Yes it would take time. And yes, it wouldn’t necessarily be accomplished in one off season. But it could be done. And even after a major renovation, the capacity for soccer would likely be below the 26k that Payne said was the max they could handle (absent the upper deck seats, which we all know provide excellent advertising/tarping opportunities).

    As I recall, his main objection to RFK was it’s location and not it’s condition (though he wasn’t happy about that either, which is more understandable). It isn’t that it isn’t big enough (they more or less never try and sell the upper deck seats, leaving capacity for soccer under 20k)…

    Of course, Payne is now gone… while RFK remains…. but it seemed to me that the real reason they wanted a new stadium was that they thought they could get one, not that they absolutely needed one. Here we go again. Wants vs Needs….

    If it weren’t for public subsidies, the sports leagues of this continent would be spending their own money renovating and improving buildings. The ONLY reason they don’t is that we are stupid enough to blow the old buildings up when they tell us to and build them nice new palaces in which to play, mostly rent free, until such time as they feel we should do it all again.

    See the cat? See the cradle?

  4. Why is the site of RFK undesirable?

    I might have mentioned this before but I might as well commit it to the record someplace if not… Anyway the scenario I see is DCU getting its stadium at Buzzard Point. Then Danny Snyder starts making noise about wanting out of FedEx (it’s still called that, right?) and wanting to get back to the district.

    So with the RFK site open, he’ll have the space. Only the outcry over the name of his team will hold up any public funding. In fact, I actually think his hardline stance is because he’s carrying this in his pocket as his “concession” to get public money. “Okay, I’ll ditch the racist name. Now give me money.” Everybody gets a new stadium. The name is gone. And the taxpayers are still on the hook for pretty much everything.

  5. You left out the part where this becomes central to the D.C. bid for the 2024 Olympics.

  6. I sorta skipped over the obvious bits… Olympics, World Cup, NCAA Championship game, Super Bowl, etc.

  7. Also, re: the World Cup. It’s amazing to me that people fall for the idea that “Hey, if we have the stadium, we can host World Cup matches.”

    Uh, the next three World Cups are spoken for (including this summer’s, but still… three). That’s to say nothing of the fact that the US doesn’t control who gets to host the World Cup. Moreover, if Platini succeeds Blatter, there is a pretty good chance that Europe will get the first available in 2026.

    Arthur Blank will be either A) dead or B) asking for another new stadium before the US sees another World Cup.

    And, even if the Qatar 2022 Cup becomes so untenable because of scheduling and the (alleged) corruption behind it; and even if the US were given it in an emergency awarding, how many games would any given city host? Five, maybe six games? Barnum (or Hannum) way underestimated the rate at which suckers are born.

  8. 2026 bids are all from CONCACAF at the moment not UEFA, and 2030 is likely be a joint bid by Uruguay-Argentina since it’s the 100th anniversary.

    My guess if the US got another emergency World Cup, they’d use the full setup of stadiums proposed for 2016. Only one of them is not currently slated for construction (San Diego, which would revert to Qualcomm) and the rest will be done and available during the summer. If the US has one thing, it’s empty football stadiums during May-Aug.

  9. A rant is it? Interesting…

    RFK is crumbling. As in I’ve seen, with my own eyes, pieces of plaster and concrete fall. Nearly every DC fan who’s been to more than a few games has(you should hear some stories). The stadium is not in good shape. It’s not about to fall over, but it’s well below the average by any category. This is not a talking point, or part of some greater ideological battle you’re creating in your mind. It is a fact.

    Second, you completely dismiss the infestation issues. It’s not exactly a minor thing. IF you had any actual familiarity with RFK or D.C. United, you’d know that. Even the broadcast announcers end up finding animals in their booth. The RFK raccoon is the unofficial mascot for a reason, and not because we love raccoons.

    I understand this is an ideological site, and there seems to be a level of epistemic closure going on here, but your conduct in insulting the site and fans is unbecoming. It was not a rant. It was a valid point. Points you barely address in a snarky tone no less.

    RFK is not a viable option. You’ve done nothing here to suggest it is. You’ve simply insulted the DCU fan community. I would think, after over a decade of negotiations with the District, if it was truly viable, it would have come up. But it’s been dead on arrival for years. To imagine it being less expensive than a new stadium is simply an exercise in futility.

  10. Garrett: No-one will ever know if redevelopment and/or renovation is a viable option so long as every DCU employee and fan (yourself included) keeps calling it a non-starter and refusing to even consider it.

    It’s just the Lew Wolff gambit over and over again.

    Saying something “is not an option” is very different from proving it isn’t. Dead animals in the announcers booth… oh that’s terrible… why stop at demolishing the stadium alone? Why not the whole city? Most of it is older than the stadium after all…

  11. For the record, I’ve been to RFK, though it was for a Nationals game, not D.C. United. I certainly wouldn’t call it well-maintained, but it didn’t look any worse than any other 50-year-old building.

    As for “infestations,” I may be biased by having grown up going to baseball games at a stadium that had more stray cats than fans for some games. A raccoon would have been a welcome diversion at some late ’70s Mets games.

    Anyway, John’s point is the one I was trying to make: Saying “RFK is a dump, we can’t even talk about renovation” isn’t getting anybody anywhere. D.C. should conduct a study of what it would take to add some modern bells and whistles to RFK, de-raccoonify it, etc. It might well be more than building anew, but it also might not be, and either way we’d then know for sure.

    It’s always instructive to remember the time that the Detroit Tigers ownership claimed that it would cost $100 million (at the time a lot of money) to bring up to speed, and it then turned out what they meant by up to speed was adding a roof…

  12. jmauro: There are no bids at the moment because there is no official bid process yet. So far it is just countries declaring their intent. Canada has done that. Mexico also expressed a desire to bid, then just within the last couple of weeks floated an idea to do a joint bid with the USA. Those are indeed all CONCACAF nations.

    Colombia which is also planning on entering the process is a CONMEBOL nation.

    Now, I believe there is currently a rule that states that a confederation can’t host a WC if it has hosted either of the previous two. That would put UEFA on the outs (I think… how much of the Asian part of Russia will be hosting matches? Any of it?). But we are talking so far ahead that I could see the next head of FIFA (and Platini is no lock, but certainly has to be one of the favorites) could probably get that rule tossed.

    But the larger point remains: the next available World Cup is so far away that your shiny new stadium you are selling the public on (looking at you, Atlanta), will be old and passé by the time the US could find itself hosting a World Cup. Plus if we’re sharing with Mexico, that’s even fewer cities that will be getting to host. Atlanta in the summer probably isn’t the most ideal place weather wise (and I think post-1994 when there was a game indoors in Detroit, games now have to be played outdoors (one of the problems with Qatar)… not positive on that). Anyway, I was at a game in Dallas in July 1994. It was brutally hot. The Dutch wilted.

    Yes, Atlanta hosted an Olympics. Fun fact about that, in the bid book they put that the average summer temperature for Atlanta was something like 72 degrees. What they did was the took the average overnight low for the summer and pretty much lied to the IOC.

  13. And Garrett: Wrigley Field has pieces of concrete falling from it. They’ve actually had to put up nets over the upper deck seats. Yet nobody is talking about tearing Wrigley down (unless Ricketts starts to not get his way and begins making more non-threat threats). Things can be renovated and repaired.

  14. Michael: Wrigley was built for the sport being played there. RFK was not. No repairs will fix that. I highly doubt renovations can either. It’d be cheaper to knock it over and built a new one. Especially considering the level of decay, I suspect if they start trying to renovate they’ll find out just how much needs to be fixed.

    Further, this HAS been discussed. I do not know what all of you seem to think it was not considered. After years of failed negotiations, you don’t think the team and the fans have covered this over and over? It’s a non-starter not because we are close-minded, but because it is not feasible. None of you have presented a single argument suggesting that it would be.

  15. I am not a Soccer Expert (far from it), but I know we have not been winning bids to International Competitions (such as The Olympics), and some of these Countries that ‘Won” have taken a bath on it (like Brazil in this World Cup). Something to consider.

  16. Garrett:”I highly doubt renovations can either. It’d be cheaper to knock it over and built a new one.”

    I highly doubt that.

    Hey, using your argument is fun.

    You want a shiny new stadium because you think the old one is a raccoon-infested dump? Great. Pony up for a PSL, pre-sell the naming rights and have your owner put up the rest. Dude just bought a majority share of Inter. I imagine he can come up with the money.

    Nobody here is anti-stadium. Many people here aren’t even anti-public-private. But most people here tend to think that the economic benefits promised for stadium construction are absolute fictions. And study after study has shown that to be the case.

    David: Brazil was having large demonstrations last summer because of the consequences of diverting money required to build new facilities or upgrade older ones (hey, Brazil can renovate the Maracana, but upgrading RFK, that’s a non-starter) from schools and hospitals were already being experienced by the poor and working class. Anyway, the difference is that here we already have more than enough venues. Depending on the host cities for a World Cup we mightn’t need to spend a single dime on facilities. In fact there is a school of thought this works against the US. When there are no stadiums to be built, there are no kickbacks or contract money to make it into the pockets of the folks running FIFA.

  17. My sense from living there is that RFK is “part of the problem” because discussing continuing to use it moves the stadium discussion away from “public goods” and back to where it really belongs, “we want you all to build us something nicer to drink beer and watch soccer.”

    RFK, and before it Griffith Stadium, pokes a hole in the myth that somehow stadiums prompt “economic activity” that resurrects neighborhoods. If we accept that east DC and Shaw have been “in decline” for some time, the fact that thousands of Redskins fans showed up 7-10 times a year in the 70s and 80s (or the hundreds of Senators fans) didn’t seem to stop that decline. It never seems to be clear to most why this particular stadium will be different, nor do I hear that maybe it is other factors than stadiums and the ever-mentioned “infrastructure” that cause neighborhoods to change for the better. We sports fans like to think we’re really important, and that what we watch is really important too.

    On the face of it, RFK is a much better location for a stadium. It has good roads going in and out (including a renovated highway), an already-built metro station, and its easy to secure and police on gamedays. Buzzard’s Point is, no matter what the drawings suggest, far from current Metro stops and highly problematic for road traffic. I’ve been to dozens of European soccer stadiums, and RFK isn’t in the bottom half. With renovation and care, it would be in the top quarter. Lots of European stadiums weren’t “built” for soccer, yet host games of the top leagues successfully.

    Since it is unlikely that either stadium will, by itself, “spur” development, it only makes sense to take the cheapest option that satisfies the basic requirement.

  18. given that the fantastically successful Seattle Sounders play in a football stadium, not an insurmountable one
    It does help that the guy who owns the football team and is the main tenant for that football stadium is a non-small part of the Sounders ownership. The team and coach always seem to delicately tip-toe around the stadium’s non-grass surface (which was a big issue during construction approvals).

  19. Garrett said: “… this HAS been discussed. I do not know what all of you seem to think it was not considered. After years of failed negotiations, you don’t think the team and the fans have covered this over and over?…”

    So, the team and fans have discussed it and decided that someone else should build them a new stadium. That is not anywhere close to rational. No-one cares whether the fans want a new or renovated facility. What needs to happen is that an independent engineering firm needs to be hired (by the district/stadium owner) to look at what it would cost to renovate RFK to a reasonable MLS standard. Then and only then can a determination be made as to whether the cost of renovating RFK (but saving the cost of infrastructure improvements that always go with new stadia in districts that were never designed to house such facilities, as well as the not insignificant demolition costs for RFK) is actually a better option than building new somewhere else. You may be right about a new $220m stadium being cheaper. But you also have to add the demolition costs for RFK (that will be the city’s to pay) and the costs for road and transit improvements before it can be determined which is the better option for the people who are paying – which is not you as a ticketbuyer, but the taxpayers.

    Your argument boils down to “because we have decided we want one”. There is absolutely no factual information provided beyond that statement (from you or during my conversation with Mr. Payne years ago). This is the argument generally advanced by a 2 year old who wants a new toy (and, of course, someone else to pay for it). “Because my friend has one”. “I wanna”.

    Come to the table with supportable facts and people will debate the issue with you. Say “because I have discussed this with other fans” and you’ll get the kind of ridicule such statements deserve.

  20. DC United owners are in the disrepair phase of their stadium push, they have no incentive to upkeep RFK because they need to prove they need a new stadium. They probably feed the raccoons.

    I love soccer but building a stadium for the World Cup or a Euros creates white elephants. It is only 3 to 6 games. You have two NFL stadiums in that area for a World Cup. Get a public/ private partnership to repair and make RFK good for DC United, the historic stadium could be the MLS’s Fenway/Wrigley.

  21. @Tom – The maintenance isn’t handled by DC United at all, but by DC Events which operates the stadium and surrounding for the city. DC United is just a paying tenant of the facility. They can also do massive repairs, cleanups, etc without DC United getting involved.

    DC Events could also do a refers study for the without DC United getting involved, but it’s sort of clear that both the city and the United do not want that to happen at all. DCU wants a new stadium where they can control all the revenue and the city has other ideas for the land (which may or may not include a new stadium).